Indian Football Team's World Cup dream inches closer after sealing AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualification
Peep. Peep. Peeeeeeeep. The referee blows for full time and the crowds erupt. Music to the ears of any Indian football fan. Never before, in my living memory, has the full-time whistle at the end of an Indian Senior Men’s team match brought such elation. Yes, we qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. But that was not through the conventional route of the qualifiers but instead via the AFC Challenge Cup.
Yes, we won the Nehru Cup thrice over the past decade. But that could be put down to playing against relatively weak opponents or their second string sides. This time, however, having roughed it out in the Asian Cup Qualifiers after a disastrous World Cup Qualifying campaign, India have finally earned the right to go toe-to-toe with Asia’s who’s who after a resounding 4-1 victory against Macau. This, however, should just be regarded as step 1 of the Great Indian Football Dream - a long, arduous path that we must take in order to truly become a football crazy nation.
Many pundits opine that Indian football is headed in the right direction. The Indian U-17 team’s performance against Colombia in the on-going FIFA U-17 World Cup and recent performances of the senior national team certainly suggest that Indian football is looking upward. Both these teams have given fans like me a reason to believe that the day may not be far when we can give the stronger Asian teams a run for their money. It will not happen overnight. Heck, it may not even happen in two year's time but qualification for the AFC Asian Cup suggests that at least we are now headed in the right direction.
In the aftermath of a disastrous World Cup Qualifying campaign, India were placed in a tricky group with the much-fancied Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar to reckon with. Kyrgyzstan had given Australia a good fight in the World Cup Qualifiers, having narrowly lost to the Socceroos. Myanmar, on the other hand, were coming on the back of a semi-final appearance in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championships.
Not even in the wildest dreams of the most ardent Indian fan would India have strolled through the group and qualified at the first time of asking with two matches to spare. 4 matches played, 4 wins, 8 goals scored and just the one conceded. This was in stark contrast to the World Cup Qualifiers where India played 8, lost 7, scored 5 and conceded 18!!
The Indian team have come a long way since then.They say defeats design spectacular successes and credit goes to the team for having shown immense character in bouncing back and especially in registering wins against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. The team are unbeaten in 12 matches since the World Cup Qualifiers.
The Indian defence was often under the cosh but Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika have proved to be stalwarts, throwing their bodies around to thwart the opponents and protect the goal at all costs. When their line of defence has been breached, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has stood firm and pulled off some magnificent saves during this qualifying campaign. Their solid defence allowed the diminutive figures of Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Udanta Singh to counter at pace and score against both Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. When they did not manage to score, Balwant Singh stood up and answered the need of the hour when called upon.
This, though, hasn't been a flawless qualifying campaign. The team do rely heavily on captain and living legend Chhetri for goals. It is a fearful prospect imagining this Indian side without him. The midfield was also exposed against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan, failing to keep possession for sustained spells. It is also notable that India seem to have become more of a second-half team with only one of their eight goals coming in the first half. But before introspection, perhaps we should just rejoice in the moment. Asian Cup qualification does not happen very often for our nation.
This qualifying campaign notwithstanding, if the Indian football team is to truly announce its arrival on Asia’s grandest stage, we will have to do much better than when we last appeared in the tournament. Back in 2011, India were grouped along with three of the top five Asian teams at the time – Australia, South Korea and Bahrain. India were subject to heavy defeats – 4-0 against Australia, 5-2 against Bahrain and 4-1 against South Korea. This time, India would hope that the luck of the draw would favour them. A good run in the tournament would definitely grab eyeballs and hopefully, it would drive more kids to take up the sport.
For India to get Lady Luck to smile on them, it is imperative for them to improve their rankings. India will thus need to walk the tightrope in the upcoming matches and balance their desire for experimentation with the need for ranking points. Good results away to Kyrgyzstan and home to Myanmar would definitely help the cause. The AIFF will also need to schedule friendlies on official FIFA matchdays against teams ranked above us not only to prepare for what lies ahead but also to gain those crucial ranking points.
India must take inspiration from Syria’s performances in the World Cup Qualifiers. Syria, a country torn apart by civil war, were a step away from qualification for the World Cup before succumbing to the mighty Socceroos. If The Great Indian Football Dream of qualifying for the World Cup and eventually fighting for the greatest honour is to become a reality, a good run in the Asian Cup would do no harm. Results would go a long way in attracting crowds and motivating young kids to take up the sport. Imagine what could have been if the Sree Kanteerava Stadium could be jam-packed for our games. The atmosphere would be deafening and could easily intimidate the faint-hearted. That, though, seems a fair distance away.
For now, though, I am going to sit back in the comfort of my sofa knowing that when the 24 teams walk out in the AFC Asian Cup in January 2019, one of them will be my proud nation and I will be cheering them on as loud as I possibly can! The very thought of listening to the National Anthem at the Asian Cup is giving me goosebumps already. Thank you to the Indian Football Team for allowing us to dare to dream.